Oblivion Is Statistically Significant

By Aaron E. Freedman, Secret Crush 

Sunburn! is a mobile game in which the crew of a destroyed spacecraft are stranded in space and doomed to die. The game uses death in three ways: First as the theme, then as a game mechanic, and finally as a confrontation. 

Sunburn! is a game about death. Although the game uses narrative sparingly, the story provides some context for how the player is tasked with solving each level. Your friends – the crew – are stranded in space. You are all dying, slowly running out of food and oxygen. If you do nothing, you will all die alone on the bleak unpopulated planets on which you have found yourselves. Gathering the crew and jumping into the sun together is the single imperative confronting the player. 

In the first level, the character Lieutenant Davis implores the player to jump: "We made a pact!" In response, the player has to connect her electromagnetic tether to Lt. Davis and fly them both into the sun. Death is the only way to beat the level. And each level is a repetition of this storyline. Sunburn! presents death as a mechanical necessity, and as such, death is only superficial: Jumping into the sun is simply how you beat a level and eventually beat the game. Every level in Sunburn! ends the same way. There is no moral evaluation of the player that later affects the outcome of the game. 

Since death is the objective of the game, that the crew die by incineration does not matter. The sun could easily be a wormhole and the game would still be coherent. During development we flirted with replacing the sun with some other objective. We rejected the change, though, because death in Sunburn! is more than a mechanical superficiality. The players and crew are never truly in danger, for they die and return with no real consequence, yet the implication of true death alters the player's actions and the crew members' statements, making it more impactful. Some of the crew seem completely oblivious to the situation and others frightfully aware that they are about to die. 

Failing to bring all the crew together can be heartbreaking–the crew chide the player and comment on their loneliness. Upon successfully ending their lives together, the crew reflect upon their new ghost bodies, asking the same questions as they would have if they were still alive. A result other than death would remove the tension that allows death in Sunburn! to be funny. But it provides ample opportunity for the crew, and sometimes the player, to reflect on their mortality. A crew member ponders out loud: "I wonder if our deaths are statistically significant?" 

Ultimately, our presentation of death in Sunburn confronts the player with an uncomfortable transgression: In order to win, you must die. The goal of every level is the same and never hidden from the player, yet the apprehension with which most players approach the initial levels betrays the moral conflict they are attempting to resolve in their minds. Most players come to terms with the mechanical necessity of death in order to continue playing. These players approach the first level with caution, and then with shock when they see the Captain and Shimura burning to a crisp. 

With each passing level, though, as players continue, their shock transforms into a glee that comes from doing something naughty. 

First developed in 2014 by indie developer Secret Crush, Sunburn! was conceived by Aaron Freedman, Diego Garcia, and Toni Pizza, three NYU Game Center alumni. www.playsunburn.com